A Louse for the Hangman
That evening there happened one of those things which are the nightmare of almost every childhood—the face of someone outside was seen pressed against the window. It is a strange thing about this that although in itself it would seem to carry no particular danger, there are grown men who find the thought of it frightening, especially if it happen on a stormy winter night and the face be an unknown one. There was no storm that evening, but the face was unrecognizable, and the apparition came at that hour when there are strange effects of light and darkness—at dusk, in fact. It was noted afterwards that it was also the hour at which Ratchett was believed to have been murdered—that is, about seven o’clock.
It was Piggott’s duty to draw the curtains. Carolus had noticed this evening ceremony with some amusement and wondered in how many English homes it is retained. He could remember as a boy sitting with his elders and at a moment carefully chosen a housemaid in cap and apron would come in.
“Shall I draw the curtains, ma’am?”
Perhaps she might be told to leave them for a little while—“we’re enjoying the firelight”—or perhaps assent were given. Then the great plush things would be pulled across the window, there would ring is rattling on the curtain pole.
For Piggott it was half an hour’s work to go round the house closing out the last of the daylight, and he did it, as he did most things, with efficiency and discretion. He had come up to the hall to begin when he heard a thing which neither he nor anyone else had heard in that house for twelve years or more, a shriek from Hermione.
She was in the little morning-room on the east side of the house, and Piggott was the first to reach it. He found her white and somewhat aghast, but standing quite firmly by the table.
“Quick! Someone outside,” she said and pointed to the window.
Piggott was across the room in a moment, but it took a few seconds to push up one of the great sash windows and leap through it. As he said afterwards regretfully, he was too late. No one was in sight, and though he dashed off to investigate, he found no one.
The family began to gather, and Carolus with them. Eustace, Lockyer and Wilpey joined the search outside, but Carolus characteristically preferred to learn as quickly as possible what had happened.
“I have just come in to look for Beaver,” said Hermione. (Beaver was her pug dog, and Carolus never knew if it was named after the quadruped or the Press lord.) “I usually brush him and Otto and Perks at this time . . .”
“In here?” asked Carolus.
“Yes. But I couldn’t see him. I called him because the little devil hates being brushed and hides. Then I had the queer feeling—you know—that I was being watched. I looked across at the window and saw . . . well, a pair of eyes was about all. A hat was pulled down and something—a mask or a black muffler—came right up to them. It never moved. The eyes stared, but the creature never moved, and I let out a scream. I didn’t see it go, but it went.”
“It couldn’t possibly have been a reflection or something?” suggested Lord Penge.
“No. Definitely not. Someone was there.”
“In that case he’ll certainly be caught. I thought this house was supposed to be guarded. Mr. Deene, would you please come through to the library? I should like a word with you.”
His calm was a lesson to everyone. But before he and Carolus could leave, Ronald spoke to Carolus in that high-pitched voice of his.
“What does it mean? Has someone got into the grounds? Is my father in danger?”
“Yes,” said Carolus.
“Do you mean that?” asked Lord Penge, still quite coolly. “It seems to me most improbable. If some intruder came up to the window he is unlikely to escape, and in any case is aware that is presence is known.”
“You may be right,” said Carolus, and they went to the library.
As he entered, Lord Penge stopped short.
“I don’t think that window was open when I was here half an hour ago,” he said.
The two men stared towards the window, which had been pushed up by about six inches.
“Do you think we should search the house?”
“I suggest that you call whichever of your men brought this tray and ask him about the window.”
On the desk was a silver tray with a bottle of sherry and two glasses. Beside it was a medicine bottle.
“Yes, I’ll ask Chilham. But he’s getting on, you know, and may not remember a thing like that. He brings in my sherry every evening before I go up to change for dinner, though it’s a long time since I drank any. When I am working in leaves his tray on a table outside the door, but this evening I must have left the door open so he could see I had gone upstairs. He also brings this beastly stuff.” He indicated the medicine bottle. “Some vitamin compound, I understand.”
Lord Penge had used his bell for one of his signals, and Chilham now entered.
“Chilham, will you remain at the door a moment and look round the room? Tell me if you notice anything changed since you brought in the sherry.”
Chilham annoyingly did not glance towards the window, but stared at his tray.
“Yes, my lord. I brought your tray in and left it on the table just as it is. But I left your medicine bottle on the tray with the sherry and glasses, not on the writing-table, as it is now.”
“Are you sure of that, Chilham?”
“Quite sure, my lord. If you remember, is my invariable way of leaving things when there is a polished surface. I should be afraid to put a medicine bottle on the desk, for fear of marking it.”
“Yes. I believe you do leave things on the tray. What do you think about this, Mr. Deene?”
“I think you should leave the bottle untouched and report the matter at once to Detective Inspector Scudd. It’s scarcely likely that the bottle will shew fingerprints other than Chilham’s and yours, but Scudd at least should be informed. The police will probably examine the contents of the bottle, too. What about that window, Chilham? Was it open like that when you bought the tray?”
“I think not, sir.”
Scudd drove up to the house in prompt response to Lord Penge’s call and did as Carolus had anticipated. The bottle would be examined and its contents analysed, he said. But when Lord Penge shewed him the open window he questioned both the peer and his butler more closely. Had the window been open all today? Yes, during the early afternoon. Who had closed it? Lord Penge himself. Have he applied the catch? He always did so, but it was possible but today he had omitted to do so. Scudd nodded and listened to an account of the apparition at the morning-room window, then said he would like to see Hermione.
“The house shall be searched immediately,” he promised Lord Penge.
Carolus waited till Scudd had left them, then said, “I think the police will find poison in your medicine.”
Lord Penge heard this in silence, then faced Carolus and spoke with unusual force.
“Can’t anything be done at once, Mr. Deene? Poison is a filthy thing, and apart from my own personal danger it is very horrible to think that a poisoner may be at work here. I love my family and my home, and this threatens both, as well as myself. Can you give me no hope of a swift solution?”
“I can only say I have the beginnings of a theory and that tonight’s events fit in with it. I want to make a number of enquiries from your family and staff before I can say any more.”
“Yes, yes. Ask anything you like, but for God’s sake try to pull us all out of this unbearable situation. It is plain that the police are quite at sea . . .”
“Not necessarily. By the way, you had a chauffeur before Gribbley, I believe, who was taken to a mental home.”
“Yes. Poor Worsdyke! I put him in a private home at first, but is wife said she would prefer that he went to one of the official ones. She had the idea that a private home would not try to cure him because they wanted his fees. He would have a better chance, she thought, in a State institution.”
“Perhaps you could just check that he’s still in confinement?”
“Oh. I see what you mean. But I scarcely think . . . however, I’ll do as you say. Now, whom do you want to see?”
“Your younger son.”
This caused another difficult silence.
“Is that absolutely necessary, Mr. Deene?”
“Then perhaps I should give you certain information on the subject I hoped not to have to discuss. Ronald is not quite mentally normal.”
“I had gathered that. I’m sure this must be painful to you, and I’m sorry. But you appreciate the position. What form does the abnormality take?”
“He has suicidal tendencies. I had to remove him from school, and before engaging a tutor I arranged for Lockyer to have some training in psychiatry. He is able and I think conscientious, but we always have some anxiety with Ronald. Since these recent incidents he has become even more excitable than usual, and we worry about him a great deal. By all means have a chat with him, but try to go as gently as possible.”
“Certainly. I’ll promise you that.”
Again Penge used his bell-pressures, and when Piggott answered he was dispatched for Lockyer. The tutor entered.
“Oh, Lockyer, Mr. Deene wants a chat with Ronald.”
“I’m very much against that, Lord Penge.”
“I’m sorry, but after tonight’s events I don’t feel we should have any scruples. I have explained the case to Mr. Deene, and he will be very tactful.”
“It’s as you wish, of course. But I don’t think Ronald should be upset by questions from an amateur detective.”
“He won’t be upset,” said Carolus. “Where will I find him?”
“He is in what we call the schoolroom. Piggott will take you. You stay here, Lockyer.”
The schoolroom was on the first floor, a big, cheerful room which had probably once been the nursery. Ronald was stretched in a basket chair, reading.
“Hullo,” said Carolus.
“Oh, hullo. Have you come to interrogate me?”
“Have a cigarette?”
No one could have been calmer than Ronald, but Carolus knew enough to realize that suicidal tendencies might be of rare occurrence in a person usually intelligent and normal. He did not like his task, however, because there was only one way in which to approach it, and this might be a dangerous one.
“I’m probably going to be a bore,” he said, “but I should like to know where you were going last night.”
“Well, in the small hours of this morning. In pyjamas, I mean.”
“Oh that. You saw it, did you?”
“Yes. No one knows I did.”
“I see. I don’t mind telling you. But don’t ask me why I did it, because I don’t really know. I was going over to the ponds and the place where Michael’s body was found.”
“I thought so.”
“I must have been half asleep.”
“You must have been damned cold.”
“I was afterwards. I didn’t notice at the time.”
“Where you looking for something?”
“Not exactly. I say, who wants to kill my father?”
“I don’t know, Ronald. Honestly.”
“What was all the fuss tonight?”
“Your sister thought she saw someone round the house.”
“What did you go over to the ponds for?”
“I wanted to see the place. They wouldn’t let me in the daytime.”
“Why did you want to see it?”
“Look here, shall I tell you something? It might help you. I haven’t told anyone else.”
“I wish you would.”
“Well, the evening when Michael was murdered I was out in the park. Whenever I go off on my own one or two of them usually follow me. Eustace did that evening, so did Lockyer. But I got well away. I could hear Lockyer shouting for me miles away. I was about a hundred yards from the ponds.”
“Go on. This is good.”
Carolus was trying to keep things on an easy level and seemed to be succeeding, for Ronald shewed no signs of great stress or excitement.
“I lay down. I was tired. It was wet on the ground, but cool. Suddenly I saw, right in front of me, Michael Ratchett walking away from my direction.”
“You saw ? But you say you were a hundred yards from the ponds, so you were even more from Ratchett. How could you see him?”
“I was a good way away, but he was lit up. It had been dark, and suddenly there was Michael lit up as though he was in the headlights of a car. Only there was no car. He was walking away from me, with his hands up like someone being held up at pistol-point in a film.”
“How could you recognize him if he had his back to you?”
“I didn’t at first. I thought it was Father. But I know now it was Michael, because when I saw that I jumped up and began to run like a hare to the house. Afterwards I heard who had been shot, so I knew that it was Michael whom I had seen.”
“I see. Nasty experience.”
“I didn’t want to be questioned about it. They would want to know why I’d been out there and why I hadn’t gone to help Michael. I went in quietly without anyone seeing me and came up here. You’re the first person I’ve told.”
“Good. Keep it between us, will you?”
“Yes. All right. But I expect they know you’re asking me questions. What shall I say they were about?”
Carolus thought for a moment.
“Do you remember Worsdyke the chauffeur?”
“Good Lord, yes. He was crackers.”
“Say it was about him.”
“Right. I’ll tell them that. I say, it’s time we dressed for dinner. We shall be late.”
“Thanks for telling me all you have.”
The cook let them down fairly likely that evening by the standards of that household, for when they reached the dinner-table Carolus, examining his little menu, saw no more than Potage à la Crème d’Orge, Truite au Bleu, Canetons rôtis, and Glace au Moka with Artichauts à la Crème and Pommes Nouvelles as vegetables. The conversation both before and during dinner was general, no reference being made to Hermione’s shock or the question of whether anyone had entered the library. Once more these were apparently nice, well-mannered people at dinner, once more their chatter was commonplace and their attitude to one another and the world at large seemed a kindly one. But when Carolus reminded himself that a member of the household had already been murdered, that little more than an hour ago another had screamed with fear at a strange apparition, that it seemed probable that an attempt had been made that evening to poison the head of the household, while that yet a fourth of them had just confided to Carolus that he had almost been present at the murder, Carolus found this spurious detachment and bonhomie a little sinister. It suggested that these people were all accustomed to playing a part.
Later that evening he was crossing the hall when Hermione stopped him.
“I’d like to talk to you, Mr. Deene.”
They moved over to the fireside, where they were alone.
“There are some things you’re going to find out about us that I’d like you to know without inquiries. I think you’re an honest person and also that you will understand.”
“That’s very nice of you.”
“There’s nothing much to know about me and Eustace. We’re the usual country type and really do love hunting and shooting, but not so much fishing, which I think is cruel. I don’t believe either Eustace or I have thought very seriously about anything but horses and sport in our lives until recently.”
“The murder, you mean?”
“For Eustace, yes. For me . . . well, this is what I have to tell you. I met a man about a year ago. We want to get married. He’s a young doctor with a practice near here. My father refuses to let me.”
“That sounds hard. One would have thought a young doctor was the sort of person welcomed by a father unless he has anything against him.”
“He has. The young doctor is Chilham’s son.”
“You do? No one else does. It’s ridiculous. All my father can say is that his daughter can’t marry his Butler’s son. ‘Because I’ve paid Chilham so well that he could afford to give his son a profession, doesn’t mean that my daughter can associate with him.’ It’s such nonsense, because we’re nobodies, as everyone knows. But there you are.”
“What’s Chilham feel about it?”
“He’s terribly upset, poor old chap. He has fits of indignation and anger. He can’t very well leave because he’s been with us twenty years or something and until Father pensions him off he can’t be comfortable. So there you are. I shall probably just go off and marry Stanley sooner or later.”
“Thank you for telling me that.”
“Well, that’s Eustace and me. Now Ronald. You realize that he’s a bit odd, don’t you?”
“So I am told. I find him charming.”
“He is, poor sweet. But he had tried to kill himself several times. And he is horribly secretive. We never know what he knows and will suddenly come out with. It’s been like that since he was a child.”
“There’s one other thing you ought to know about us. My father and mother hate each other about as much as two people can. Haven’t you noticed that they never speak? If they do it’s to have a blazing row, but that doesn’t happen often. Four years we’ve lived with that—the two of them sitting at opposite ends of the table and talking, but never a word to one another.”
“I had noticed it. But I’ve seen people who have been married a long time behaving in exactly the same way. It has not meant that they hate one another.”
“Mother and father do. I know it. So now that I’ve got all that off my chest, perhaps I can ask you one of two questions. Do you know who killed Michael?”
“I have something which a more optimistic person might call a suspicion.”
“Why don’t you tell us?”
“It’s far too indefinite. I haven’t a notion of what motive there can have been, for instance.”
“Surely that’s obvious. He thought Michael was Father.”
“T hat’s not absolutely certain, you know. And even then I know no motive he could have for killing your father.”
“Tell me something else about it.”
“There’s nothing to tell. I don’t think much of any of your alibis, by the way.”
Hermione looked quickly at him.
“What’s wrong with them?”
“They aren’t alibis. Three of you at least were in the park when Ratchett was shot. I haven’t talked to the servants yet, but I don’t think theirs will be much better. However, that may not be so important.”
“Whom do the police suspect, Mr. Deene?”
“I don’t know. An outsider, I think.”
“And you? Don’t you suspect an outsider?” She was almost pleading.
“Oh, a complete outsider,” he said, and left it at that.